After spending most of the lockdown alone — and the first 120 days of 2021 in a cast for a misdiagnosed, partially torn ligament with a side of multiple sprains in my foot, my spirits were low and my anxiety (like most humans on the planet) has been dialed up to 11.
So, when I learned that Children With Diabetes was holding their Friends For Life Conference (#fflOrlando21) in real life this year I was ecstatic! I’ve previously reported from congresses for Ascensia - I pitched the idea and was graciously hired to report on my experiences attending FFL and traveling in a COVID-19 world.
I was anxious as hell because of COVID-19 (and the Delta variant), airports, planes, hotels, crowds, etc.
But I needed to do this - to get back out there, safely. I needed to catch glimpses of my old self because the pandemic had forced her into hiding and I worried she might never return. And quite frankly, I needed a good dose of Friends For Life to recharge my diabetes batteries.
So I reminded myself that I was fully vaccinated, could continue to wear a mask and came up with a plan to maintain my mental and physical well-being throughout the conference.
Education: I read articles focused on traveling in a COVID-19 world, talked with others who had already tackled traveling (flying and staying in hotels), purchased an extra box of masks specifically for the trip, and made sure I had hand-sanitizer for my carry-on, handbag, and luggage.
I knew it was imperative to get myself out among people before my trip for multiple reasons:
- I worried I was becoming agoraphobic (not joking),
- I DID NOT want to have a big COVID-19 “freak out” at Philadelphia International Airport or at Disney’s Coronado Springs
And so I did, safely and on my terms.
- I had dinner outdoors, at a restaurant with my family at the end of April and for the first time since December of 2019.
- The week before I left for Orlando I made myself sit inside a mostly empty Starbucks (and wiped down my table and chair with Clorox wipes), for the first time since February of 2020.
- I attended a 10:30am showing of JAWS on July 3rd, at a recently opened and refurbished movie theater with stadium seating. Children wore masks, as did most adults, and everyone was socially distanced re: seating.
Scoping Out The Deal With Food
Diabetes makes us acutely aware of the importance of food when it comes to preventing and treating low blood sugars and I knew I needed to scope out the food situations/workarounds — at both my destination and at the airports.
After my flight was booked and I knew what terminal I was departing from, I checked Philadelphia International’s website and found out what food options were available in my terminal. And I did the same for Orlando International.
I always bring food with me when I travel, but knowing the choices available at each airport eased my anxiety.
The pandemic also changed hotel dining - I needed to find out what my options were. Several hotel restaurants were closed, those that were open had COVID-19/Disney rules in place including; reservations (for some,) limited seating/times and or takeaway for the rest. Room Service was not available.
Off-site, Disney Springs used to be an option. This year, the majority of restaurants required reservations (via Open Table or various Disney Apps/websites) and offered limited seating.
I had no desire to deal with Disney Springs crowds and eliminated it from my list.
I discovered that both Instacart and GrubHub made deliveries to Coronado Springs Bell Services for a nominal fee.
Conference friends also suggested mousewatcher.com , a site that for a daily fee will text-alert you real time reservation openings at Disney restaurants and the My Disney Experience App, which provides up-to-date restaurant availability throughout the parks and Disney Springs.
But Is Your Smart Phone Smart Enough?
FTR, know your smart phone’s limitations re: software updates.
Why? Instacart, MyDisney Experience, and GrubHub apps required ISO 13.
Unfortunately, I have an iPhone 6+ (yes, I’m aware I need a new phone), and the latest and greatest update is 12.5.4, so I was unable to install those apps. Luckily, I had my laptop with me and ordering groceries wasn’t an issue. Most people don’t bring their laptops to Disney, but a good number bring tablets.
Getting To The Airport, Sitting On A Plane, Getting To The Hotel & Anxiety, Oh My!
Thanks to COVID-19, certain businesses and services closed, so I had to change my pre-flight routine. Instead of driving to a carport valet service near to the airport, (they drive you in your car to the airport, store your car, and pick you up in it) I drove straight to the airport and got lost for a good 40 minutes in the mess known as short term/long term parking at Philly International.
After checking my baggage I headed towards TSA. TSA was empty — like there were maybe 7 people ahead of me and it was the most surreal TSA line in the history of TSA lines… dare I say it was almost a pleasant experience? Almost being the operative word, because it changed once I asked for a visual inspection of my insulin pod’s PDM and CGM. Clearly some things never change. SIGH.
After my pat-down, I was detained and questioned, while my diabetes tech was swabbed and tested for explosives. When I was allowed to finally proceed, I stopped for water and yogurt en route to my Gate.
At this point I was nervous, agitated, and so damn thankful to be double masked and surrounded by hand sanitizer stations. I did my best to keep my distance from others, which wasn’t easy. I held my ground and hoped for the best.
When I boarded my packed flight, (HUH), I was handed a Lysol wipe, and immediately used it to clean my seat and arm rests. I said a little prayer to all the deities that came to mind, placed my backpack in the overhead compartment, sat down, buckled my seatbelt, and double checked my jacket pocket to make sure my hand-sanitizer was within reach. Everyone on board was masked and nobody complained about having to wear them.
Once we landed, my double masks stayed on as I made my way through a jam packed Orlando International (which freaked me the hell out). I took the crowded airport train (and touched nothing), to Baggage Claim, retrieved my suitcase and headed to catch Disney’s Magical Express. There was like 8 people on my shuttle, normally ME shuttles are packed and seats 40 or 50 people. By Disney decree, everyone sat in their own row and wore masks, including the driver.
Hotel Check In
I wore my mask, as did everyone else in the lobby (employees and guests), and the overall experience felt safe and relatively painless.
Until I asked a hotel employee walking by about the hotel’s policy re: guests’ vaccine status. I was told that Disney uses the honor code when it comes to asking people who weren’t vaccinated to wear masks. Quite frankly, that made me uncomfortable and I wasn’t happy.
I signed a Disney waiver a month before I arrived that stated I wouldn’t hold Disney liable if I contracted COVID-19.
l noticed generous numbers of hand-sanitizer stations, and some areas where socially distanced open seating spaces were created.
UPDATE: On July 29th, Disney changed their mask rule - ALL Disney guests over the age of 2 must wear masks indoors at all Disney properties, no exceptions.
My hotel room was spotless and I opted out of daily House Keeping services.
Friends For Life Arrangements
FFL made conference check-in simple and safe. FFL Check-in lines were divided alphabetically, everyone socially distanced in the line, and most wore masks.
I saw several FFL staff informing parents of children under 12 that masks were required at all times.
The vibe was electric with continuous warm welcomes from old friends and first timers.
The session rooms included abundant seating, assuring that everyone could spread out according to both COVID-19 social distancing suggestions and the attendees’ comfort level.
Kudos to Disney and the FFL staff! Meals were not only scrumptious, food was handled with the utmost of care. Two out of the three conference days included breakfast and lunch to-go meals, which were pre-packed, bagged, and magically delicious! Hands-down, the best to-go breakfast and lunches I’ve ever had. Pickup was timed according to the letter (A or B), on the back of your conference badge and meal seating was offered in a Ballroom, outdoors, or in the hallway seating areas.
The banquet, opening reception, and farewell breakfast meals were served in one room by gloved and masked waitstaff standing behind plexiglass panels at multiple stations and eaten in another ballroom.
All meal carb counts were available via QR smart phone scans.
What About Hugs?
Hugs are a big thing when it comes to attending FFL - it’s a real part of the conference and something that everyone not only looks forward to, but requires. This conference isn’t only informative and empowering when it comes to living and managing diabetes, it’s incredibly emotional. This time around, hugs weren’t automatic when you encountered old friends.
Instead, combinations of the following terms were continually uttered:
“Are you comfortable/OK with hugging?”
“Are you vaccinated and can I give you a hug?”
“Am I allowed to hug you and no problem if you’re not comfortable.”
Some people hugged, some people didn’t. Others half-hugged or elbow bumped — nobody was offended with your choice(s).
So Am I Glad I Went?
Honestly? Yes, I am.
Even with all the anxiety re: travel in the pandemic world in which we currently live, I’m glad I took the opportunity to travel and attend #FFLOrlando21. FFL helped me to find my pre-COVID self again. It allowed me to connect and feel connected, and it gave me the nudge to pick up the reins re: travel, even though I was anxious.
As always, FFL gave me a space to learn about diabetes in all dimensions, meet new people, and reconnect with old friends.
I had some moments where I was freaked out in the hotel room — especially on Saturday when I woke up with the sniffles — until I reminded myself that every time I spend more than 3 days at a hotel in a hot climate, especially one with massive amounts of continual forced air conditioning throughout, I end up with a stuffy nose. At several FFL conferences I’ve lost my voice by day six.
Did I practice self-care by going to bed early a few nights? Yep.
Was I anxious having to do deal with another day of travel to get back home? Hell yeah!!
But I did it.
I’m hoping to attending #FFLOrlando in 2022.
Until then, I’ll keep washing my hands, wearing masks and sticking to small gatherings. And I’m scheduling a COVID-19 test for my own peace of mind.